One of the early architects of rock and roll, Fats Domino combined R&B with New Orleans swagger to create a feel-good but raunchy form of music. Lyrics such as "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill" leave little doubt as to the nature of that thrill, but Domino's radiant smile and rollicking piano never offended. A huge part of rock history was lost upon his October 24, 2017 death. but his timeless catalog will remain for new fans to discover. This week's DeepSoul is the first in a three-part salute to the music pioneer.
Born in the Big Easy in 1928, Antoine Domino grew up in a musical family. The youngest of eight children, he was taught to play piano by a brother-in-law; by age 10, he was already performing locally as a singer and pianist. Four years later he would drop out of high school to pursue a musical career full time; while he played piano for noted New Orleans bassist and bandleader Billy Diamond, Domino earned the nickname "Fats."
After studying under Diamond, Domino left the band, headlining his own shows by 1949. Around this time he was signed with Imperial Records; subsequently he released his first single, "The Fat Man," cowritten with New Orleans-based producer, arranger, and composer Dave Bartholomew. The track became the first million-selling rock song, although Domino would soar to new heights just six years later when "Ain't That A Shame" reached mainstream pop success. The winning combination of Bartholomew and Domino racked up hits until 1963, when Domino departed Imperial (they would reunite in 1965 and finally split in 1970).
Bartholomew wrote "I Hear You Knocking" in 1955 but not specifically for Domino. New Orleans-based R&B singer Smiley Lewis first recorded the track, with Huey "Piano" Smith accompanying him on piano. After peaking at number two on the Billboard R&B singles chart, numerous artists covered the track (including a strange version by singer/actress Gale Storm), but Domino's version made the most sense. By 1961, Domino and Bartholomew had collaborated for 12 years. Having Bartholomew--the original track's songwriter--produce Domino's rollicking take on "I Hear You Knocking" resulted in a version deeply rooted in rhythm and blues with more than a touch of New Orleans strut.
Domino's relaxed vocal delivery belies the lyrics' true meaning--rejecting a past lover's advances. "I begged you not to go but you said, 'goodbye'/Now you come back tellin' all those lies," he drawls, walking a fine line between nonchalance and anger. As with many Domino tracks, sexual undertones lay somewhat hidden in Domino's voice, yet are evident upon a close listen. "If you had listened long time ago / You wouldn't be going from do' to do'," he chastises, suggesting his ex-girlfriend had cheated on him and refused to commit. This time, he vows, "I hear you knockin' / But you can't come in." Bartholomew's chorus lingers long after the record ends, its catchiness and sing-along qualities simply irresistible.
On "I Hear You Knocking," Domino's piano functions as a percussive instrument as much as a melodic one. Listen to how his relentlessly pounding piano complements the easy rhythm, along with the bawdy horns. Interestingly, the solo is played not by Domino but by Jimmy Moliere, a jazz guitarist who adds an air of sophistication to the R&B track with his brief but tasteful work.
Today Dave Edmunds' 1970 rocked-up version still receives airplay, yet Domino's cover of "I Hear You Knocking" receives little notice on oldies radio. Indeed, it did not perform well on the 1961 charts, peaking at 67 on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition, it was released toward the end of the early rock and roll era. However, "I Hear You Knocking" deserves renewed attention for its seamless combination of R&B and New Orleans sounds, both of which comprise the blueprint of rock and roll. In other words, it's pure Fats Domino.